Mexico: Food and Traditions — By Ben on 30 January 2011
Tamalada (Tamal Party)

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Like I’ve mentioned many times before, in Mexico everything is an excuse for celebration and we love to celebrate with food. A party is not a party without tons of delicious food. And what a better way to celebrate (other than with tacos) than with tamales? The history of the tamal (from the Nahuatl tamalli which means “wrapped”)  is a very interesting one. It was a very popular food in Mesoamerica when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century.  Civilizations from this area used the tamales as portable foods for armies, hunters and travelers. But that wasn’t the only purpose of the tamal. They were described by the conquistadors as a popular food eaten by the lower and upper classes of the Mexica empire. Archeological evidence suggests that it had been eaten by earlier civilizations as far back as 5000 BC.

Tamales in Mexico are as varied as the country itself. Every region has its own distinctive way to make tamales and also wrap them. And the fillings, well, let’s say that you can make tamales of any flavor you can think of. Although tamales are still a very important part of our culinary heritage and eaten year round, they are the staple food for Día de la Candelaria on February 2nd. This festivity is closely linked to the feast of the Magi on January 6th. The king’s cake or ring usually has 1 or 2 dolls embedded that represent baby Jesus and whoever gets them is expected to make tamales on February 2nd. This wasn’t my case, but when Foodbuzz call for submissions for January’s 24 event I knew I wanted to make tamales being so close to dia de la Candelaria.

I had never made tamales myself before. My parents made them for a while, but that was a long time ago. My grandma, on my mother’s side, also used to make tamales all the time, but that happened a long time before I was born. However, I knew I could do this (with my mom’s guidance, of course). The preparations started last Wednesday with a trip to the largest market on earth, Central de Abasto in Mexico City. I will write more about this amazing place for my Market Monday series tomorrow, but I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures to give you an idea of what this place looks like:

CRW_0904

CRW_0917

26/365

We got most of the ingredients in Central de abasto and were ready to start cooking Friday morning. We planned to make corn husk and banana leaf tamales with 8 different fillings so we needed to start cooking early for our brunch on Saturday. The first step was making the fillings:

Cuaresmeno peppers

Some fillings

Followed by beating the masa (dough) which consists of freshly milled corn, lard (lots of it), salt and sugar (for the sweet kinds) for the corn husk tamales. This step is the most important one to make delicious tamales. The dough for the banana leaf tamales is different. It has chicken broth, lard, tortilla masa and salt.  I’ll be posting tamal recipes the rest of this week and maybe even the following one so don’t worry, you’ll get all the recipes. I couldn’t have done this without my lovely baby, though. She makes my life a lot more easier:

My chiquita at work!

The next step was washing the corn husks, we started with this kind first, and filling them with the dough and actual fillings and placing them in the tamalare (a big pot where the tamales are steamed until cooked).  This part was done by my mom and a friend of hers who insisted on helping us out. She wanted to learn how to make them and we needed the help, which was a win-win situation:

Corn husks

Tamal masa

Pork and green salsa tamal.

And that's how you wrap a tamal

Lining up

That night we ended up so tired that we decided to make the banana leaf tamales the following morning. By then we had more than 100 tamales ready to be cooked first thing Saturday morning. We didn’t make as many banana leaf tamales as corn husk ones and the process was somehow easier and more fun, I think. First the banana leaves have to be “cooked” by passing them over a flame until they change color, but being careful not to burn them or they won’t be useful to wrap the tamales.

Banana leaves

Banana leaves

We only made two fillings for this kind of tamales, but they were by far the best ones. The first kind was mushrooms cooked in a green tomatillo sauce and the second one picadillo (ground beef with vegetables) wrapped in a Swiss chard leaf, oh so delicious:

Oaxaca tamal

Oaxaca tamal Oaxaca tamal

Acelga leaf Acelga tamal

Acelga tamal

Acelga tamal

But what is a tamalada without a traditional corn drink? My mom made a BIG pot of champurrado with cinnamon and traditional Mexican chocolate, perfect for a chilly morning. Everything was ready, and then the guests started to arrive:

Tamales ready to be devoured

Guests

We were 11 diners total: my aunts Belen, Sofi and Lidia, my sister Norma and brother in-law Ignacio, my mom, dad and cousin Zury, my friends Ruth Alegria and Marco and I. And these were the little stars of the day:

Rajas and quesillo tamal

Guajillo and raisins tamal

Mole tamal

Pineapple and chocolate tamales Picadillo tamal

Seta tamal

They were so tasty and pretty that we had to take pictures, of course. We love food and we love to talk about food:

Tia Sofi, Ruth, Marco

Ruth, Marco

Sis, Zury, Mom

Li and Belen

Zury, Belen, Mom

This feast was a success not only because of the food or tradition, but because of the wonderful people who attended. I want to thank Foodbuzz for giving me this opportunity to share some Mexican traditions with the world, but I’m even more thankful to my friends and family for making this a wonderful day full of delicious food and great company. I’ll be sharing the recipes for these tamales during the following weeks. But here’s the list of tamales we devoured Saturday morning:

Corn husk tamales:

  • Rajas with cheese
  • Pork in green sauce
  • Chicken with poblano mole
  • Guajillo sauce with raisins
  • Pineapple
  • Pecan

Oaxaca (banana leaf) tamales:

  • Picadillo
  • Mushrooms

Champurrado drink

Are you in the mood for tamales now?

¡Buen provecho!

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About Author

grew up around food. His family owned a restaurant in Mexico City and he spent a big deal of his childhood helping and learning after school the art of creating delicious dishes from simple ingredients. He created this blog to share his kitchen adventures with the world.

(25) Readers Comments

  1. omg, so fun!!!!

  2. What an AWESOME idea for a 24×24. I love tamales and all yours look wonderful. How fab to have access to all those delicious ingredients!

  3. Those tamales are gorgeous! I really love your choice of fillings! What a great party.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  4. I am in the mood for tamales Ben. What an amazing array of traditional dishes. All hands lead to the kitchen and this was a meal that celebrated family and Mexican tradition. Excellent job!!

  5. ¡¡Que ricos y vistosos tamales¡¡¡ has tenido buena acogida con su familia, LOs tamales de acelgas s¡me encantan, una buena idea.
    Bsss desde Almeria

  6. Preciosa familia Ben.

    Of course I am in the mood for some tamales, they look so delicious. This dish is very similar to the Pasteles en Hoja that are done in Dominican Republic.

    Have a blessed week : )

  7. Oh, Ben, you do inspire. I've made lots of tamales in my life (almost always with a group of friends or students–rarely alone), but never with Swiss chard leaves and never even with my Kitchen Aid. Not sure why. You may have changed my life forever. Again…

  8. I think making tamales is a perfect excuse for a party because they are so much more fun to make with other people!

  9. What a great post! So informative and like a mini trip south of the border. Well done!

  10. oh yeah, would i love to sit at that table for a while.
    never made tamales, but trust me i want too.
    perfect instructions Ben.

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